Former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer will lead Michigan’s first all-female statewide ticket in the November election, winning the Democratic nomination for governor and pitting her against Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette, an ally of President Donald Trump.
Schuette and Whitmer — both veteran officeholders — easily bested their opponents in Tuesday’s primary to set up their head-to-head race to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who reached his term limit. Another Trump favorite, black Iraq War veteran and business executive John James, defeated self-funded detergent manufacturer Sandy Pensler for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth term.
Though Whitmer may still choose a male running mate, the Democrats are fielding women for governor, Senate, state attorney general and secretary of state. Democrat Rashida Tlaib won a race to run unopposed for the Detroit-area House seat vacated by John Conyers, making her poised to become the first Muslim woman in Congress, and two women advanced to a fall showdown for an open suburban Detroit district.
“We need to throw Bill Schuette a big retirement party come November,” Whitmer told jubilant supporters in Detroit. “We need a governor who knows how to get things done, who’s ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.”
The 46-year-old from East Lansing appealed for party unity, saying she was proud to have run against a diverse field of candidates that included Dr. Abdul El-Sayed — Detroit’s liberal ex-health director who hoped to become the nation’s first Muslim governor — and big-spending entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, an immigrant from India. Both had criticized her for accepting corporate political action committee money and not embracing a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer health care system.
Whitmer asked the supporters of El-Sayed — who was endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — and Thanedar to join a “big tent” to fight for clean drinking water, better roads, broader health coverage and better-funded schools.
Schuette, 64, received congratulatory calls from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence after he beat Lt. Gov. Brian Calley — a close partner with Snyder — conservative state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines, an obstetrician-gynecologist.
Schuette, who had been accused by Calley of misusing his public office for political business, also sought to bring Republicans together and criticized Whitmer.
“Whatever differences we may have, it is my hope starting tonight that we can unite in our common goals — more jobs, greater growth and bigger paychecks for Michigan families,” he told backers in his hometown of Midland. He credited Republican leaders for helping the state “get off the mat” after a decade-long downturn and said Whitmer would “take us back to a time of shuttered industries, dashed dreams and higher taxes.”
The GOP has controlled Michigan for 7 ½ years, and Democrats are eager to capitalize on what is typically rough sledding for the president’s party in midterm elections and the state electorate’s penchant for backing the opposite party when a governor leaves due to term limits.
Though voters went with outsiders Snyder in 2010 and Trump in 2016 — the first Republican presidential victory in the state in decades — some said Tuesday that they liked Whitmer and Schuette’s political experience.
“She was in the Legislature fighting battles when there was no hope to win,” said 45-year-old John Hetzler, of Grosse Pointe Woods, who noted that he might vote Republican but only if they rejected Trump. “Detroit in on a great track, but there are so many things that need to be done. There’s a growing sense of more people being left behind. Look at Flint and the Detroit schools. Michigan could be doing a lot better.”
Steve Lauer, 75, a retired business consultant from Traverse City, said he backed Schuette — a former congressman, state senator, agriculture director and appellate judge — because of his experience and conservative beliefs. Lauer said he likes Trump but that the president’s endorsement didn’t sway him.
“I like balanced budgets. I like lower taxes,” he said.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Schuette had roughly half of the GOP vote to Calley’s quarter, with Colbeck and Hines at 13 percent and 11 percent respectively. Whitmer also won slightly more than half of the Democratic votes, while El-Sayed received more than 30 percent to Thanedar’s 18 percent.
With the gubernatorial and Senate victors being declared not long after the closure of all polls, attention turned to several closely watched House battles.
In the 8th District stretching from the northern Detroit suburbs to Lansing, former U.S. national security official Elissa Slotkin, a Detroit, moved on to face Republican Rep. Mike Bishop in what is expected to be a competitive general election. In suburban Detroit’s 11th District, GOP businesswoman Lena Epstein and Democrat Haley Stevens won wide-open contests to follow a retiring Republican congressman in what is considered a toss-up seat.
In another suburban Detroit district, the 9th, Andy Levin beat former state Rep. Ellen Lipton in the Democratic primary to succeed his father, longtime Rep. Sandy Levin.